DEL MAR — The Triple R Racing Stable--the R's stand for trainer Rodney Ray Rash--is in Barn SS at Del Mar.
It would be more fitting if Rash's horses were stabled next door, in Barn RR. But that's the only thing wrong with Rash's season here, which has produced six victories, three seconds and three thirds in 22 starts.
The most important contributors have been stakes winners Navarone and Light Of Morn, and Navarone will try to add to his credentials Monday, as one of the favorites in the $250,000 Del Mar Handicap.
Rash, 33, has been in the winner's circle after the Del Mar Handicap before, not as a head trainer but standing next to his mentor, Hall of Fame conditioner Charlie Whittingham. Whittingham has won the stake seven times, three of them in the 1980s when Rash was his No. 1 assistant.
Rash began working for Whittingham at 15, starting at a $75 per week as a hot walker, cooling horses after they exercised. A few times in recent years, Rash had considered striking out on his own, but then Kentucky Derby winners such as Ferdinand and Sunday Silence would pop up, necessitating long stays out of town for Whittingham and extending Rash's responsibilities at the California tracks.
Rash enjoyed being Whittingham's surrogate at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, but early last year, with the chance to work for some established clients, he obtained a head-training license.
"My last day (April 13) was Charlie's birthday (his 78th), and we won with the last horse we saddled," Rash said.
Now, more than a year later, Rash has a barnful of horses, many of them well bred and 15 of them owned by Bob Hibbert, a Texas oilman who has been breeding and racing horses for nearly 40 years. Hibbert bred and owned Roving Boy, the champion 2-year-old colt for trainer Joe Manzi in 1982. In 1983, Roving Boy collapsed on the track and died after winning a stake at Santa Anita.
Hibbert races Navarone and Light Of Morn, as well as Mojave Gold and Ginny Girl, other winners for Rash at the Del Mar meeting, and they will try to get the first victory for Swiss Mirage in today's ninth race.
On Friday morning, after training hours, Rash's phone rang in his barn office. It was Hibbert, 83, calling for an update.
"Navarone just worked a half-mile in 50 seconds, breezing," Rash said. "He's dead fit. Mojave Gold (third in a race Thursday) had bad racing luck. It was just one of those things. She might have been best."
The Hibbert-Rash connection is the result of a letter the trainer wrote to Hibbert last year, and a follow-up phone call he made to Jane Dunn, who prepares many of Hibbert's horses for the races at a farm not far from Del Mar.
"That was the only letter I wrote to anybody," Rash said. "When I got started, for obvious reasons, I wanted to distance myself from Charlie's clients. But Joe Manzi had passed away, and he had worked for Charlie before Mr. Hibbert hired him, so I thought he might be interested in me, too. I really didn't know Mr. Hibbert, but I had done some work for Jane Dunn."
The son of a Maryland dairy farmer, Rash became a heavy drinker in the early 1980s, but Whittingham stuck with him, even through a 30-day hospital rehabilitation period. Rash wears a gold medal around his neck inscribed with the date he quit drinking, Feb. 24, 1986.
Whittingham is in Chicago now for Sunday's Arlington Million, trying to win the race for the second time with Golden Pheasant and the fourth time overall.
Rash can relate to that mission. He was at Arlington Park in 1981 when Kilijaro, Whittingham's first starter in the Million, ran 10th. Then, in 1988, while Arlington was being rebuilt after a fire, Rash saddled Mill Native, the French horse who won the Million at Woodbine at 40-1. Andre Fabre was the trainer of record, and the colt was going to be sent to Whittingham in California, but Rash did the saddling.
Asked about the Breeders' Cup potential of Navarone and Light Of Morn, Rash said: "As Charlie always said, you don't run horses where they don't belong. We'll see. After Del Mar, we'll run them at Santa Anita (during the Oak Tree meeting). Then we'll see if they deserve to go."
Asked about his first year as a head trainer, Rash said: "I'm very pleased. I've been very lucky. I'm a go-getter, and I'm hard-headed. But I also think I'm competent."
With rain in the forecast and Sky Classic at the top of his game, Golden Pheasant isn't given a good chance of repeating in Sunday's Arlington Million. The 1990 winner has won only one of four starts this year and does his best running on firm ground.
The only horse to have won the Million twice is John Henry, in 1981 and 1984.
Sky Classic, the 5-2 favorite in the 1 1/4-mile grass race, will be ridden by Pat Day, who has been third three times in eight Million mounts.
Here is the field, in post-position order: